Barry Jenkins’s American Saga

The Odyssey

Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad.


As Cora, a fugitive enslaved person in Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, attempts to make her way to freedom via the clandestine antislavery network—depicted by the author as a subterranean train system—a remark follows her through the tunnels. “Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll see the true face of America,” a station agent told her as her train departed. The statement appears pat at first—an aphorism that clashes with the gravity of Cora’s flight. But it later proves instructive: Both the railroad and the nation as a whole are under construction.

The comment returns to Cora after she has traversed multiple states and still has not found refuge, encountering so many horrors on the run that her ostensible freedom feels like a burden. “It was a joke, then, from the start,” Whitehead tells us, summing up Cora’s thoughts. “There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.” When Cora again finds herself on the railroad, alone after surviving a horrific encounter with slave hunters, she revisits the station agent’s dictum yet again, this time with awe and resolve. “Cora ran her hand along the wall of the tunnel, the ridges and pockets,” Whitehead writes. “Her fingers danced over valleys, rivers, the peaks of mountains, the contours of a new nation hidden beneath the old.” Despite the death and violence that have stalked her, Cora finds the darkness welcoming, its indeterminacy an opportunity to look ahead, perhaps even to dream.

Dreams and wonder are the mainstays of director Barry Jenkins’s rich adaptation of Whitehead’s novel, which imagines Cora’s escape as a Black Odyssey. Like its source, the limited series (hosted on Amazon’s Prime Video) is expansive and chameleonic, shedding its skin as Cora, born enslaved in Georgia, makes her way through the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Indiana. Her journey is ambivalent from start to finish: Each state in this alternate 19th-century America offers a distinct flavor of freedom and thrall, the lines between them always blurred. Building on yet also departing from Whitehead’s novel, Jenkins stages Cora’s escape as a kind of spiritual quest. As she winds across the antebellum hellscape, wrestling with a survivor’s guilt that’s as capacious as the darkness of the railroad’s caverns, she confronts the misery both around her and within her.

Jenkins’s storytelling focuses on slavery’s survivors rather than on the institution’s brutality. Violence is frequent, ambient, and perverse, but it is rarely central. Jenkins takes seriously fellow filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s contention that “humanity is not in the image” alone. Where previous film depictions of slavery and anti-Black violence have fixated on the grotesque and shocking—branded flesh, whip-scarred backs, the dead swinging from trees—Jenkins looks to the effects of such sights. He’s uninterested in arousing sympathy or fury in the viewer. Instead, he maps the world of the enslaved, tracing how brutality becomes lodged in their bodies and minds while also relishing the moments of relief they snatch from their captors. For Jenkins, humanity is in the social and spiritual life of the enslaved subject, not in the spectacle of her body.

Jenkins introduces Cora, played by Thuso Mbedu, in free fall, her arms flailing as she descends into an abyss. As Cora plummets in slow motion, scattered images are juxtaposed with her descent: a bloody birth, a man running backward, a girl in a burning house, afterbirth buried in a hand-dug hole. In a sense, Cora’s life is flashing before her eyes—as the show slowly reveals, this montage comprises moments and people from her past and future. But there’s a strange omniscience to this vision. Though we see the fixtures and landmarks of Cora’s life, we are privy to more than she will see, more than she can see. So when the sequence ends with her unwavering gaze directed into the camera, it feels like a warning. “Do not lose sight of me,” she seems to say.

This artful, oblique opening establishes the stakes and timbre of The Underground Railroad’s harrowing adventure. The show deliberately aims to redefine how slaves are seen. “We have sought to give embodiment to the souls of our ancestors frozen in the tactful but inadequate descriptor ‘enslaved,’” Jenkins said in a director’s statement for The Gaze, a nonnarrative film made up of portraits of the show’s characters and extras. The term “enslaved,” he continued, “speaks only to what was done to them, not to who they were nor what they did.” Cora is central to this restorative vision, her path giving shape to the show’s grim realism and its dreamy indulgences.

Before she reaches the Underground Railroad, the story lingers on the Georgia plantation where Cora was born and raised. The Randall plantation is owned by two brothers, James and Terrance, who have split the property into north and south parcels. The northern one, where Cora lives, is implicitly less brutal, but the show glosses over that obvious allegory in order to explore the plantation as a home and birthplace. Right after Cora is approached by Caesar (Aaron Pierre), who inquires about whether she is interested in escaping—an offer she rebuffs—another plantation denizen plotting flight, Big Anthony (Elijah Everett), crosses the grounds during a birthday celebration among the slaves. He’s visibly torn about his choice, walking with purpose but stopping to greet people and drink in the festive surroundings. He doesn’t waver, but the decision is difficult: Fleeing means abandoning his home, his people.

Cora, too, is rooted. On the night of Big Anthony’s departure, she takes food to a disabled resident of the plantation and defends a boy who is being beaten by Terrance, both gestures of care and solidarity. The latter intervention results in corporal punishment for both Cora and the boy, a scene that’s emblematic of the series’ approach to violence. The whipping opens with Cora and the boy tied to a post that’s centered in the frame while their assailants stand at the edges, administering strikes. The blows and the victims are obscured by the cloak of night, drawing attention to the sounds of the lashes, which continue when the view changes to the crowd of onlookers, who are forced to watch in silence. By focusing on the witnesses, the camera emphasizes the power of the act rather than suffering. Punishment here doesn’t just dispense pain; it maintains control.

The plantation’s hold over Cora slips after a greater act of violence. When Big Anthony is captured and returned to the plantation, Terrance turns the man’s punishment into a spectacle. Hosting a party replete with music, wine, and food, he has Big Anthony whipped and then immolated in front of the guests and the slaves. The scene is set in broad daylight, so the cruelty of the execution is overt, but again Jenkins finds ways to decenter suffering and emphasize power. Big Anthony does not die silently. As Terrance pontificates before the assembled crowd, Big Anthony heckles him. And when he can no longer speak, the scene is shown from his perspective, the camera switching to a smoky POV shot overlaid with the roar of the flames. When Cora returns to the cotton fields afterward, it is that grisly crackle that sticks with her rather than the twisted pageant. Big Anthony wasn’t just killed; he was silenced, drowned in fire. Cora and Caesar run away that night.

The series grows more baroque once Cora and Caesar make their escape via the titular train, a narrative pivot that’s taken from the novel and embellished on-screen. Griffin, S.C., where they find safe harbor for a spell, is awash in colorful anachronisms and allusions. There’s a comical mention of the clothing line FUBU, a cameo by a character from Whitehead’s debut novel, The Intuitionist, and a skyscraper with an elevator, among other fantastical references. These indulgences are subordinate to the plot, which follows Cora’s and Caesar’s struggles to suppress their anxieties and adjust to their new identities, but they are essential to the show’s vision. The whimsy and overt artifice of Griffin feel like direct responses to the intense vérité of the scenes on the Randall plantation, digestifs for both the viewer and the characters. The Underground Railroad rejects the idea that joy and pleasure taint the integrity of a slave narrative rather than enrich it.

It can’t be overstated how unusual this approach is within the history of slavery’s depiction on-screen. For decades, the standard riposte to Hollywood’s long tradition of caricatures, omissions, and distortions of slavery has been to present slaves as heroes. Antebellum, Harriet, and Django Unchained all traffic in triumph and valor, channeling Warrington Hudlin’s 1998 argument that “for the psychic needs of African-American audiences…we don’t need Beloved or Amistad, we need Spartacus.” Misha Green, the creator of the recent historical TV drama Underground, which stages the abolitionist network’s daring efforts as a prison break thriller, takes this idea even further: “They’re superheroes,” Green argued. Kasi Lemmons, the director of Harriet, expressed the same sentiment, calling Harriet Tubman “a real-life superheroine.”

The Underground Railroad wills its characters to be more layered and multifaceted than the hero paradigm allows. When Cora and Caesar unearth a more sinister anachronism lurking beneath Griffin’s quaint veneer—a state-sanctioned sterilization program—they respond as fugitives rather than as saviors, making plans to leave the town. Even a small act of resistance by Caesar, who destroys some of the vials of contraceptive pills that the town’s Black men are tricked into taking, is laced with guilt: He discards the drugs at night while most of his new roommates and friends are sleeping. It feels like an apology.

That sense of obligation to the Black people who can’t be whisked away to safety torments Cora even as the railroad endangers her. Griffin turns out to be one of many false paradises, a running theme that’s explored by Jenkins. If the blood-soaked but down-home vistas of the Randall plantation evoke ambivalent roots, and Griffin reifies a kind of bogus modernity, the small North Carolina town that Cora flees to next personifies naked settler colonialism. The unnamed town, which has outlawed Black people, is a white supremacist utopia. Cora’s introduction to the state is the Freedom Trail, a ghastly road lined with lynched corpses. The trailhead is presented at night with the bodies dangling between the trees in silhouette, an image that underscores the idea that the country cultivates Black death, sowing it into the landscape.

The Underground Railroad is filled with such ornate tableaux, using them to draw attention to both the staggering scale of slavery and the guerrilla architecture of the Underground Railroad. This motif is the show’s clearest deviation from the book. Both outline the limits of the scrappy abolitionist network—from its meager carrying capacity to its closed lines to its unpredictable schedule—but the show is more explicitly a travelogue: a slow accumulation of sensations and perspectives, a tarrying in liminal spaces, an act of witnessing.

It’s fitting, then, that the show’s signature shot is a kind of audiovisual postcard. It first appears when Cora is in the custody of Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a dogged slave hunter. After capturing her in North Carolina, he drags her across a barren Tennessee that’s been razed by wildfire and sickness. The journey is arduous, and the strain of the trek burns Cora out, the apocalyptic landscape mirroring her state of mind. But during a vivid dream, the hellscape becomes a sanctum, first showing Jasper, a captive of Ridgeway’s who died in transit, now alive and unfazed by the scorched terrain. Then the view shifts to a cotton field where slaves, some of them familiar to Cora, stand in profile, their gazes addressing a drifting camera. Punctuated by the chug of a train, the vision accents the idea that Cora’s forward motion is productive, that the people and places she has been forced to leave behind are still with her.

The postcard shot depicts the trauma of a tremendous loss without reproducing an exploitative gaze, a subject that weighed heavily on Jenkins’s mind. He was reportedly so concerned about courting the wrong gaze that Amazon convened a focus group of Black Atlanta residents to determine whether Whitehead’s book should even be adapted. The group overwhelmingly sanctioned the project and encouraged Jenkins to be unflinching, but the process seems to have pushed him to be artful as well as shrewd—to portray the enslaved as they saw themselves.

The one-sidedness of such an effort is the point—Jenkins is trying to inhabit a perspective that he knows has been lost to time—but it’s also a liability. As he conjures these unknowable ancestors, summoning them to look into the camera with quiet pride, he never quite finds a way to evoke their multiplicity. There’s an inertness to the postcard shot, tender and restorative as it is, that verges on prettified respectability. There is no rage or relief or tension in the gathered faces of the enslaved. Their gaze is direct but unthreatening, easy to meet.

That staidness is especially strong in one of the show’s most elaborate set pieces, a dream sequence in which Cora imagines a grand terminal for the Underground Railroad. As she navigates the concourse, overstimulated by the scale of the station and guilt-ridden because she’s once again eager to leave a place behind, the space bustles around her. The scene is stunning aesthetically, the prim and industrious Black travelers and workers indulging the fantasy of an unsullied Black sanctum. But the station is oddly calm and ordered for an atrium of fugitives and survivors, a mood that grows more suspect as Cora is shown to be the only person out of place. When she is outed and the station goes dormant, an entire platform of riders regarding her, the image flattens. Despite all those eyeballs, “the gaze” is not plural.

All of this takes place within Cora’s psyche, so it’s easy to read the sequence through the lens of her guilt—but even as a nightmare, it doesn’t feel true to Cora’s acute fear of being called out as a deserter. If the scene’s goal is to convey the depth of Cora’s shame, there are far more direct ways to evoke that deep-rooted stigma than for strangers to gawk at her. Overall, the postcard shots reproduce the silence that they’re trying to break. A living statue is still a statue.

The Underground Railroadis at its best when it probes the railroad itself. As Kathryn Schulz has written, the Underground Railroad is a piece of Americana, its mythology far larger than its historical footprint. Slaves escaped in directions other than north: to Spanish Florida, to Mexico, to the Caribbean, to Native American communities. They also bought their freedom, saving scraps until they could afford emancipation, then roosting in the communities where they had been enslaved. As a form, the railroad tale is, “in a way, the perfect American story,” Schulz writes in The New Yorker. “Its plot is the central one of Western literature: a hero goes on a journey. Its protagonist obeys the dictates of her conscience instead of the dictates of the state, thereby satisfying our national appetite for righteous outlaws.” Throughout her passage, Cora challenges this tradition, questioning her handlers and rejecting her strange fortune. Toward the end of her journey, her skepticism grows blunt. “What good is a railroad if only special folk can take it?” she asks.

Cora poses a question more crucial than “Who is this for?”: Who benefits from this? The answer in The Underground Railroad is often the lucky rather than the courageous or the strong or the gifted, a rebuke to the latent patriotism of the railroad’s parable—and a break from the viewer’s demand for joy and uplift. That constant attention to outcomes rather than designs, impacts rather than ideals, ballasts the show’s dazzling wish fulfillment. If the Underground Railroad is at heart a legend of redemption and salvation, a pocket of light within the cursed historical abyss, Cora’s saga is a reminder of the richness of the depths.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy